Magic-powered joy machines

A wee column I wrote for PC Plus has made its way online:

Buying a PC online often feels like you’re playing the world’s worst text adventure. Do you want the new Argonomicon 15, or the Mongrolodian F2? Would you sacrifice a half-gig of RAM if it meant getting the F9321A processor instead of the F32321?

It’s all about specs.

Shouldn’t it be about sex?

I don’t mean sex in the horrible, local newspaper advert “SEX! AHAHAH MADE YOU LOOK! BUY A FRIDGE!” sense. I mean in the sense of possibility, of excitement, of the sheer joy of doing amazing things that make everyone think you’re amazing too.

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12 thoughts on “Magic-powered joy machines

  1. Jamie says:

    Compare and contrast with the iPad launch this week. They could’ve quadcored the bejesus out of us but sold it on what you’ll use it for. Retina display = look at pictures really sharply not 2500×1900@32bit.

    Buying a windows PC is like buying Android. You can’t really choose between them so they bamboozle you with specs.

    That said, Apple learnt the lesson of megahertz a few years ago and their adversity focused them on “look, you can do magic with this stuff”.

  2. gary says:

    Yes, I think you’re right about iPads and android. There’s a good piece in Slate today about it: the supposed killer features the iPad lacks turned out not to be killer features after all.

    It’s certainly interesting to compare the marketing and product ranges of Acer and Apple.

  3. mupwangle says:

    Tablets are different, as Apple is the market leader, but with PCs they are all selling a product with the same OS, so the only differentiation is by specification or design, which is usually secondary if it’s not an HTPC. Yes, it is bloody confusing, but I’m not sure that there’s another way of doing it. Apple don’t need to because if you want a mac you buy whatever it is that Apple are selling.

    Apple still do the megahertz thing, thats why you can specify different processors. To say they don’t is disingenious. The only problem with using MHz as a comparison was not that there’s anything wrong with it, it’s that it was being done incorrectly. It is perfectly OK to compare two similar PCs based on MHz, the faster is generally better. The problem was that it is used to compare completely different things. It’s like using bhp to compare vehicles. 100bhp on a motorbike is a completely different experience to 100bhp on a lorry.

    It’s easy to give Apple credit for doing the marketing thing right because they aren’t having to compete with an almost identical product. You use the example of using the term “really sharply” rather than specification. OK, my PC monitor displays images really sharply. Is yours better or worse? How can you tell from “really sharply”? And Apple don’t sell it on what you use it for – had they done that then you would’ve had 3G and copy/paste on the iPhone because I used that a lot on the phone before and the phones after. I also have run out of memory on my iPad and yes, the new iPhoto looks great but to use it I have to take all the apps and music off as it doesn’t support removable memory. Apple sell it on what they want to sell it on. Yes, they could have quad-cored it and, if there was an iOS device made by someone else to compete with, they could have. There isn’t so they don’t have to. The New iPad and the iPhone 4S are, whatever the specifications, the best iOS devices on the market. They are better than the old ones by a bit, they sell well and have huge margins. What’s in it for Apple to go bleeding edge?

    They have to compete against Google and, even then, not directly. Acer, HTC, Dell, et al have to compete against each other and the only real differentiators are price, size, speed and resolution. If Samsung started claiming the bollocks that Apple use, like the more magical shite, then HTC will point out that theirs is equally magical, but does it quicker and costs less.

    In the end it’s all bullshit anyway. iOS is a great user experience and I suspect that very soon the whole Android experience will be equally good (each revision is significantly more polished, and to someone who often uses the two simultaneously, I don’t think Android is far behind). Android, in part, suffers from the same issues as Windows as it needs to support much more varied hardware, which slows development down a little.

    Unfortunately the users are screwed anyway because if Google or Android come out with any decent features they’ll only appear on one ecosystem due to patent lawsuits.

  4. Squander Two says:

    David, I think you’re misunderstanding the nature of marketing. Cars are all pretty much the same, but car adverts aren’t just lists of specs. Renault ran an entire campaign around va-va-voom, even having Thierry Henry explain in the most famous ad of the campaign that no-one even knows what va-va-voom is. Honda have a choir singing car noises. Citroen are currently saying “Oo, look at all the pretty colours!” If advertising were about specs, Betamax would have beaten VCR. PC advertising is all specs because the firms are controlled by geeks.

  5. Mupwangle says:

    Not really. There’s a big difference between brand marketing, which is what you’re talking about, and actually buying the product. Say you were swayed by Renault’s advertising, that would get you in the showroom, but your choice of vehicle would be based on specs and appearance, not marketing. If Renault were apple there would only be one car in the showroom. I’m not saying that pc and tablet marketing isnt shit, it clearly is, but the marketing that brings people in to apple is based mainly on the os. When all your competitors share the same os, you can only differentiate on design or specs.

  6. Gary says:

    > Apple still do the megahertz thing, thats why you can specify different processors. To say they don’t is disingenious.

    The difference, though, is that if someone asks you which Apple machine to buy you can say “MacBook”, “MacBook Pro” or “MacBook Air” without getting bogged down in incomprehensible product numbers. I’ve been asked for PC laptop recommendations several times recently and once you got past the manufacturer name you might as well have just punched random buttons on the keyboard. This is a world where Z5600-GB1 is a real product name.

    > And Apple don’t sell it on what you use it for – had they done that then you would’ve had 3G and copy/paste on the iPhone because I used that a lot on the phone before and the phones after.

    All of Apple’s tablet marketing – all of Apple’s *marketing* – sells the sizzle, not the sausage. Take the iPod for example. Its strapline was “1000 songs in your pocket”. Other Mp3 players were sold on specs.

    Incidentally, Apple used to do the crappy model name/number thing too. Jobs binned that policy and many of the products when he returned, which was the beginning of the end of the basket case years.

    > If Renault were apple there would only be one car in the showroom.

    Last time I was in a dealership it was very like an Apple Store: you had one version of each vehicle – so for example an Audi dealer would have an A2, A3, A4, A5 etc. Apple has a table of iPads, of MacBooks, of Airs, etc.

    I agree with you that it’s largely about the OS with Apple, but I don’t think it’s *exclusively* about the OS. Apple markets in a non-geeky way to non-geeks.

    > Acer, HTC, Dell, et al have to compete against each other and the only real differentiators are price, size, speed and resolution.

    Exactly. That’s the problem: they’re effectively selling the same bits in the same boxes at the same price as one another. I chose the white goods comparison deliberately, because I think for most PC firms their products are white goods. There’s no value-add going on in most cases – that’s why things such as the Transformer Prime get so much coverage. An interesting machine! Thank fuck! :)

    > When all your competitors share the same os, you can only differentiate on design or specs.

    Yep. Which is why it’s so soul-destroyingly dull.

  7. Squander Two says:

    Yes, but advertising doesn’t have to be based on what differentiates you from the competition; advertising can BE what differentiates you from the competition. That is very much the whole point of it. Most products exist in a market where they have to compete with essentially identical products; most of these products have better ads than PCs. And most of them would never dream of making it about specs. Cars are a bad example because they’re so expensive — of course you check the specs before buying. Plenty of other products out there sell millions based on nothing more than cool ads that tell you fuck all about the product.

    PC firms have loads of money and spend it on some decent advertising firms, who I’m sure understand advertising. I would bet money that those firms have come up with plenty of good campaigns over the years, but those campaigns have been binned as soon as they run into the executive board of Acer or whoever, who would say things like “It doesn’t mention the name of the processor!” or “What about the clock speed?” The firms are run by the sort of people who buy on specs and none of them can wrap their heads around the fact that they’re a weird minority.

    Dell are taking some tentative baby steps in the right direction. Their ads currently come across as a compromise between the two camps: “OK, we’ll let you show someone smiling and you can say they like using their laptop, but NAME THE PROCESSOR.”

  8. Gary says:

    > those campaigns have been binned as soon as they run into the executive board

    *puts on corporate copywriter hat*

    I have some experience of that. Can’t name names, of course, but there have been times where I’ve produced really sparkling copy and I’ve been told to ruin it :)

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